Jewish Latino Teen Coalition marks 13 years of advocacy, diversity

The Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition at the Newseum, a museum that promotes free expression and five freedoms of the First Amendment, in Washington, D.C., during their annual trip to Congress, April 2, 2017. Standing (L-R): Megan Ramirez, Ellie Friedman, Aliya Markowitz, Chloe Goorman, Lisa Kondrat, Aaron Green, Max Silverman, Nicolas Rios, Hannah Weisman, Lew Hamburger; kneeling: Shari Gootter with Indy, Francisco Lopez (Facebook)

Lobbying in Washington, D.C., for an increase in protections for immigrant families was an invigorating experience, says Nicolas Rios, a high school student and member of Tucson’s Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition. 

Rios, 16, a junior at BASIS Tucson North, heard about the JLTC from his college preparatory counselor.

Growing up in Southern Arizona sparked Rios’ interest in politics, as well as immigration and border-related issues, he says. Having the opportunity to engage with another dominant ethnic and religious group in Tucson piqued his interest in the JLTC.

“I had a very positive experience overall and there’s not too many opportunities like it, so I was really excited to be able do this sort of program,” says Rios.

Each year, high school sophomores and juniors throughout Tucson apply for the JLTC. Once selected, the local students choose a political topic to study, and end the yearlong program by lobbying Congress. The students meet every Sunday leading up to the trip, and are briefed on their chosen topic by local professionals.

The unique program is a joint effort of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and the office of Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva.

The group will celebrate its 13th year at a “B’nai Mitzvah” party on Sunday, April 30. The dessert and coffee event will be held at the Most Holy Trinity Parish, 1300 N. Greasewood Road, from 3-5 p.m. The event will feature guest speakers including past alumni, a representative from Grijalva’s office and Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.

The cultural aspect of the group provided many insights, Rios says. “Being able to see the similarities between some Jewish traditions and Latino, or Catholic, traditions — that was very eye-opening.”

Rios comes from a law enforcement background and has a few family members who serve as customs officers. This year, Rios joined a border patrol program in order to get a firsthand experience of immigration enforcement.

He wants to study international relations and foreign policy in college, and hopes to bring that skill set back to Arizona after graduation. 

Shari Gootter, a local therapist and JLTC mentor, became involved with the group 11 years ago via a program coordination position with the Federation’s JCRC.

Even as Gootter decided to shift her professional focus toward her private practice, limiting her time, she stayed connected to the group.

“This is one program I could not let go of,” says Gootter. “It’s a unique program in so many ways, and it allows the students an opportunity that I don’t think exists in any other way.”

The program introduces students to a multitude of topics ranging from cultural awareness to leadership training and political advocacy, Gootter says.

Another strength of the program is that students are drawn from high schools throughout Tucson. This year’s group represents seven different schools across the city, she says, which only adds to the cultural and socioeconomic diversity.

  “There’s a lot of development there, and it’s the exposure to different cultural pieces,” she says. “They grow personally and then they grow as a group.”